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A Leet Primer

A Leet Primer

With the Internet creating global subcultures of non-English speakers, leet is set to expand by absorbing more non-English words and concepts. Its absorption of new words will be influenced by the languages of new Internet users.

By Anthony Mitchell E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
12/06/05 7:00 AM PT

Leet has outgrown its roots as an obscure communication system for computer bulletin board users and has become a broad cultural phenomenon. It is expressed by acronyms and synonyms, and by substituting letters with numbers, punctuation marks, and phonetic combinations. In leet, leet itself can be expressed as l33t or 1337. The full formal long form is elite or 31337.

Leet has grown to represent attitudes and subcultures that extend beyond the use of leet as a communication system. Leet is challenging traditional patterns of communication system growth and propagation. Its behavior is uniquely tech driven and tech enabled.

New Form of Communication

New forms of leet are encouraged. Leet users often disregard standards and reward innovation. Leet is adding new vocabulary and transpositions that are harder to decipher, especially in hardcore leet where every original letter is transposed.

Soft leet forms may only transpose one letter in a word or phrase. A soft leet term that has made its way into popular use is pwned or pwn3d. It stands for 'owned' and refers to being defeated in a game or embarrassed in life. It also represents the taking over of someone's computer.

Leet's offline expansion is accompanied by a spreading of leet attitudes and computer hacker concepts. We are being spammed in leet, marketed to in leet, and spoken to in leet. We are increasingly using leet in our own communication, often without realizing it.

With the Internet creating global subcultures of non-English speakers, leet is set to expand by absorbing more non-English words and concepts. Its absorption of new words will be influenced by the languages of new Internet users. Leet's allowance for distorted syntax enables it to serve as an international trade language for computer hackers, gamers, and those who may occasionally imitate aspects of 31337 culture.

Non-native speakers of English are often quicker to pick up and expand upon leet than native speakers. Leet stands to be transformed as janta (Hindi and Urdu for a mass of people) comes online. Janta is already using leet to post obscenities and insults on English-language Web sites, so as to evade detection by unsuspecting videshi (literally: "people not from our country") moderators and system administrators.

Here we examine:

  • The origins of leet
  • 31337 attitudes borrowed from online computer gaming
  • How leet is disseminated
  • Leet security issues
  • The mechanics of creating and translating leetspeak

The objective here is to enable readers to gain a basic familiarity with leet mechanics and culture, and to be able to translate small amounts of text back and forth from leet to English.

Origins of Leet

The cultural attitudes and some of the early slang behind leet can be traced to the 1970s and early 1980s, the heyday of the phone phreak era. During that era, individuals and informal groups sought to explore the public telephone system in the U.S., often to make illegal long-distance telephone calls. The most proficient individuals in the phone phreak subculture received recognition and status that enabled them to become cultural bellwethers.

When computer bulletin board systems (BBSs) became available in the 1980s, phone phreak culture gained a written medium in the online exchanges that were often so slow and clumsy that users would shorten words or phrases to be able to send messages more conveniently. For example, 'you are' or 'your' could be shortened to u r or ur.

Short leet forms are commonly observed today in SMS (Short Message Service) text messages composed on mobile phones. The popularity of leetish truncations on SMS is driven by the keyboard designs on most mobile phones. While computer users have access to full QWERTY keyboards, on most mobile phone keypads each button is shared by three letters. Little keypads encourage leet.

Uses of leet that substitute numbers and punctuation marks for letters can be traced to the 1980s when bulletin board administrators sought to discourage the use of BBSs for the storage and distribution of pornography and stolen software. To circumvent BBS restrictions, spellings and words were altered by some BBS users. Enduring relics from that era are the leet terms pr()n and pr0n, which signify pornography.

Another relic is the translation of the word hacker, which was banned by some BBS administrators. Initial leetspeak translations to hack0r or h4cker led to filtering and bans on those leet terms, pushing leetspeakers to develop more obscure, less recognizable translations such as h4x0r and |-|^><()|z.

The status of BBS users who gained access to elite areas or features of BBS systems led to the creation of an "elite" label. Subsequently shortened to leet (rhymes with beat) or "el leet," the slang and anti-authoritarian attitudes accompanying elite status remained an element of leet communication as BBS users migrated to the Internet in the 1990s and leet expanded into online gaming communities.

The polymorphic, easily mutable characteristics of leet have remained a salient characteristic of this communications system since the BBS era of the 1980s. Leet has taken on some of the self-modifying characteristics of the viruses developed since that time and that often contain leet. More so than hacker subcultures, however, it has been the larger world of online computer games that has been responsible for leet's mass popularity.

Attitudes From Gaming

The 1980s and early 1990s were the heyday of online text-based multiplayer games, particularly the role playing fantasy games called MUDs, for multi-user dungeon, domain, or dimension. MUDs combined aspects of action games with instant message text chatting. MUDs created social universes where specialized terms and linguistic conventions were developed. A few MUDs are still being played today, but have been marginalized by the rise of graphics-intensive online computer gaming.

Modern online computer gaming, often accompanied by text chat or spoken conversations is a breeding ground for leet culture. Not only do gaming universes contribute vocabulary and stylistic inventions to leet, but also adolescent male attitudes of competition and status recognition. This attitude is exemplified by someone replying to the question "What have you been up to?" with, "In your base, killing your boys."

Attempts to project and protect status constitute powerful driving forces behind a lot of the behavior of young males, particularly in its more extreme forms. By standing out and taking risks, males can attract attention to themselves, attention that can boost their status and make them appear more desirable to females. According to Geoffrey Miller in his book The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, males have demonstrated their mating fitness throughout human existence by inventing and displaying new, innovative communication forms. Biological factors are particularly in evident when communication forms are difficult to implement, show skill and originality, but are largely useless outside of the context of mate competition efforts.

Biological drives by males to display their fitness have propelled human languages to burgeon in size and complexity. Language proficiency and vocabulary size distinguishes humans from other animals who compete for mating opportunities by using other fitness indicators such as muscles in gorillas and large song repertoires in some species of birds.

Online gaming environments are populated by young males striving to distinguish themselves from their competitors by inventing and displaying innovative communication forms. This creates a fertile breeding ground for leet. Leet is the peacock's tail of the gaming generation, the ultimate indicator of human evolution among increasing numbers of our species.

31337 Dissemination

Leetspeak was developed by and for early adopters of new Internet technologies. By itself, the relationship between leet and new technologies would have been enough to ensure leet's profusion. However, the revolutionary nature of how the Internet organizes and disseminates knowledge has given leet a momentum that no earlier system of communication has enjoyed.

Rhetoric in Socrates' time (470 BC - 399 BC) emphasized one-on-one communication and the individual's role in determining their own truths. Socrates was the tutor of Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle (384 BC -- 322 BC). For Aristotle and his student Alexander the Great, rhetoric (as described earlier here meant one-to-many communication, with individual rhetoricians attempting to persuade their audiences using many of the same techniques used today in mass communications.

The rise of online wiki systems and blogs allowing many-to-many communications has encouraged leet popularity outside gamer and hacker circles, while also providing mechanisms for leet's rapid mutation. In the wiki world, inventive individuals can coin new leet terms and have them accepted globally in a matter of days.

Wikis such as UrbanDictionary.com allow new leet words to be developed and propagated instantly. Wikis also allow an enantiodromia of meanings, whereby a word can go from one end of an extreme to another. For example, the word sluts is now being used to indicate proficiency and excellence. "Paul sluts at GTA," is a compliment indicating that Paul enjoys a proficiency in playing the first person shooter (FPS) game Grand Theft Auto.

Security Issues

Internet security firms have learned to look for leet as an indicator of attempted intrusions. Using an alternate spelling for leet, Jamal Khan, the CEO of Connecticut-based computer security firm Haval Daar said:

    L33t trapping through IDS/IPS mechanisms is simple. It is a matter of applying the correct transformation rules. However, the belief that a single L33t rule applies to the hacking community is wrong. Select groups structure and develop their own iterations of L33t speak.

Khan finds different leet styles are used by disparate hacker cliques to distinguish themselves from script kiddies. Khan said that connoisseurs in the hacking culture look down on script kiddies, who are seen as causing mischief with hacking tools and scripts that they neither developed themselves nor adequately understand.

In an ironic reversal, system administrators and regular computer users are increasingly using leet to frustrate hackers. Automated dictionary programs are used by hackers to generate huge numbers of login combinations until one is found that allows access into a targeted system. Incorporating leet into passwords can render dictionary programs useless.

A system administrator at the U.S. bankruptcy court in Seattle is reportedly helping system users include leet transpositions in their passwords. Most of these system users have little or no understanding of leet, although they now use it every day at work.

Soft Encryption

As in the BBS days of the 1980s, leet's use as a soft encoding system can frustrate automated text scanners deployed to screen emails and text messages. Because of leet's variability and mutability, 31337 content is not always easy to translate and scan in batch operations. As a consequence, traditional surveillance tools often cannot identify key terms in e-mails. Scanners looking for the word 'bomb' are going to miss it if it comes up in leet as 8*^^8.

The use of leet to avoid filters is seen today in efforts to reduce e-mail spam. As filters evolve to include the most common leet terms associated with spam, new variations in leet are constantly being developed. You can test your e-mail filter by sending an e-mail to yourself with the word pr()n or pr0n in the subject line.

Given the ease of capturing e-mails and text messages, leet makes captured text hard to read and can add a small degree of privacy for legitimate communications, especially when full leet is used in place of all original text characters. For those using web-based e-mail clients, there is an extension for the Mozilla Firefox called the Leet Key that can translate all text into full, hardcore leet.

For the leet obsessed, the Leet Key can translate the text of Web pages into 31337 without leaving the original page. To find out how to use Leet Key, consult the manual at leetkey.mozdev.org/user-manual.html.

The Mechanics of Leet

Leet can be generated by removing one or more letters and substituting characters, numbers, or phonetic equivalents, such as eye or 3y3 for 'I'. Random capitalizations sUch aS tHiS can also be employed. Letters in leet can be omitted entirely, rather than substituted, as in this refrain:

    Age duz not protek U frm luv bt luv 2 som Xtnt proteks U frm age.

Intentional misspellings are popular in leet, both in spam e-mail message headers and in conventional leet use. A popular misspelling is teh, which also serves as a leet grammatical tool for turning verbs into nouns. For example, "Katie is teh win at pool," or "K4713 12 7h3 w1|\| @ P00L" indicates that Katie is a good pool player.

Leet's vocabulary is often expanded by the addition of portmanteaus, i.e., new words created by joining existing words together, often with truncation. The word 'phreak' is a portmanteau that truncates phone and freak together, dropping intermediate syllables in the process.

Simple leet may only transpose one or two letters in a word. One popular substitution is to use z for s, e.g., clientz and parnterz. Another is to use 1 for the letter i, e.g., Rash1d for Rashid. Hardcore leet removes all original letters.

A leet-to-English and English-to-leet online translator is available at LearnLeetSpeak.com. A soft English-to-leet translator may be found at AlbinoBlackSheep.com. Leet outputs from online translators can be hardened by adding additional substitutions from the list below.

Leet Substitutions

The following list of leet substitutions was derived from an earlier list published on Wikipedia. Janta will change it, especially for aspirated and compounded syllabaries. Commas are used below to separate possible transpositions, except in (, for G, and ,| and ; for J, and (,) for Q.

A
4, /\, @, /-\, ^, ä, ª, aye

B
8, 6, |3, ß, P>, |:

C
[, ¢, <, (

D

|), o|, [), I>, |>, þ

E
3, &, £, ë, [-, €, ê, |=-

F
|=, ph, |#

G
6, &, (_+, 9, C-, gee, (,

H
#, /-/, [-], {=}, <~>, |-|, ]~[, }{, ]-[, ?, }-{

I
1, !, |, &, eye, 3y3, ï, ][, ¡

J
,|, _|, ;, _)

K
X, |<, |{, ]{, }<, |(

L
1 (1 can be used for either L or T), 7, 1_, |, |_, #, l

M
//., ^^, |v|, [V], {V}, |\/|, /\/\, (u), []V[], (V)

N
//, ^/, |\|, /\/, [\], , <\>, {\}, []\[], n, /V, ₪

O
0, (), ?p, , *, ö

P
ph, |^, |*, |o, |^(o), |>, |", 9, []D, |?, |7

Q
9, (,), <|, ^(o)|, ¶, O_

R
|2, P\, |?, |^, lz, [z, 12, |2, Я

S
5, $, z, §, ehs

T
7, +, -|-, 1, ']['

U
(_), |_|, µ, v, ü

V
\/

W
\/\/, vv, '//, \^/, (n), \V/, \//, \X/

X
><, +, ecks, )(, Ж

Y
Y, '/, `/, V/, \-/, j, ¥, %

Z
2, z, ~\_, ~/_

|\|0\/\/ ¥0µ @|2€ |2€@þ¥ 70 |-|@\/€ ƒµ|\| \/\/¡7|-| £€€7!


Anthony Mitchell , an E-Commerce Times columnist, has been involved with the Indian IT industry since 1987, specializing through InternationalStaff.net in offshore process migration, call center program management, turnkey software development and help desk management.


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